Modern Know-Nothingism


    The phony charge that a Muslim community center in lower Manhattan is a mosque, and that it is going to be built on Ground Zero – rather than six blocks away – is not the only  controversy over religious construction projects. The First Amendment of the Constitution demands that the government will “make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” but there is nothing that our founding document can do about the irrational fear and hatred in the hearts of people.

    More than one hundred and fifty years ago, in a period when the dominant English Protestant Americans felt somehow threatened by a large influx of immigrants that were either German or Irish Catholic, a political movement known as the Know Nothings sprang up. Membership was limited to Protestant men of British lineage over the age of twenty-one. Back then, it was the Catholic Church that faced fights whenever a congregation wanted to site a church. Now, especially since September 11, 2001, it’s Americans who share the Muslim faith.

    Protests over the building of a mosque is not simply happening in Manhattan. There have been similar fights in Staten Island, Brooklyn, Southern California, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Illinois, and dozens of other locations.

    The desperation of right-wing politicians during this election year has brought out hate-mongers more than willing to demonize yet another group for political gain.

    A Staten Island mosque was recently vetoed when a church’s pastor changed his mind about selling a closed convent to a Muslim group after ugly demonstrations in the neighborhood. Since the contract stipulated that the sale had to be approved by the board of trustees of St. Margaret Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, the decision was reversed. One of the religious bigots who loudly protested a mosque in the neighborhood said, “We just want to leave our neighborhood the way it is – Christian, Catholic.”

    There has been vocal opposition to proposed Muslim houses of worship and/or community centers in Brooklyn, Brentwood TN, Sheboygan County WI, Dayton OH, among other locations.

    According to Eric Rassbach, director of litigation for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, more than one hundred houses of worship nationwide – including Christian, Buddist, and Muslim congregations – are involved in lawsuits over land use or other objections to practicing their religion as a congregation.

    Know-Nothingism didn’t disappear with the 19th century. It is alive and thriving today. If people of good will don’t stand up to bigotry and hate, who will?

    “They came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

    Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

    Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.

    Then they came for me and by that time no one was left to speak up.”

    Pastor Martin Niemöller wrote those words trying to explain the passivity of German intellectuals in the face of the rise of Nazism. He himself had supported Adolph Hitler’s government, but he opposed the nazification of German Protestant churches. For that, he was imprisoned at Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1937 to 1945. His words remind us that once bigotry and hate are given free rein, there is a terrible price to pay. Are you listening Pat Buchanan? Sarah Palin? I doubt it.


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